Sunday, September 6, 2009

Trapped by Television (Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Trapped by Television, an engaging little number we’d just downloaded from that turned out to be considerably better than most of the movies we’ve been getting from this source lately. It was made in 1936 at Columbia and directed by Del Lord — mainly known as a comedy director; he was one of the original Keystone Kops in 1915 and by the 1930’s was working at Columbia mainly as a director of the Three Stooges shorts, though when he got this script by Sherman Lowe and Al Martin (story) and Lee Loeb and Harold Buchman (screenplay) he got the chance to show he could do character and situation comedy as well as he did slapstick.

It opens outside the office door of the Acme Collection Agency — “If You’ve Got It, We’ll Get It” (a slogan which couldn’t help but remind me of the unscrupulous collectors in the recent film $9.99!) — where the boss (Wade Boteler) is getting more and more impatient with the interest of his main collection agent, Rocky O’Neil (Nat Pendleton in one of his most appealing performances), in science and technology. (Rocky keeps sneaking copies of Popular Science into the office and reading them when he’s supposed to be working — and Charles and I were both startled to see a real magazine instead of a fictitious one in a 1930’s film!)

Rocky gets sent to collect a bill for $164 at the home of Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot), who’s invented a revolutionary new television system. (I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect the television equipment was authentic; the real inventor of electronic television, Philo T. Farnsworth, was virtually as poverty-stricken as the fictitious one in this film, and he frequently picked up extra money by renting out his experimental TV equipment to movie studios making films that involved TV. The camera in the film looks more like an alien space weapon than a piece of TV equipment, but the receiving set — aside from having all its controls on the side — looks credibly like a TV set from the 1960’s or so.) Rocky is astonished by Fred’s television system — he agrees to be the subject of an experimental telecast in which his image and voice are beamed through a closed doorway to Fred’s receiving set in his bedroom — and agrees to get Fred a job with the Acme Collection Agency to help him raise the money to pay what he owes (which of course not only includes the $164 for his equipment but also three months’ back rent, owed to his stereotypical Irish landlady played by Lillianne Leighton).

Fred’s first collection assignment is to get payment for a back bill for office equipment owed by Blake Enterprises, Inc. — which turns out to be two women, Barbara “Bobby” Blake (played by an overqualified but still appealing Mary Astor, top-billed) and her secretary, Mae (Joyce Compton). Though her business is promoting inventions and raising the money to get them to market, she’s as broke as Fred is — thanks to the fact that some of her previous promotions were for automatic potato peelers and courses to learn Greek in six easy lessons — but naturally she sees Fred’s TV as her ticket to success. She raises $200 on it from Curtis (Thurston Hall), the head of the Paragon Broadcasting Company, which is concerned that some rival network will beat it to TV — though Curtis gives her the money more to get rid of her than out of any faith in his invention.

What Curtis doesn’t know, but we do, is that his own engineers are involved in a plot to screw him out of his own TV system (the one he’s allocated money to research); newspapers announce that his two top TV engineers have been kidnapped, but the senior engineer is actually being held against his will as part of a plot concocted by his assistant, Griffin (Marc Lawrence) — who has a “roo” moustache and therefore we know he’s up to no good — and Curtis’s own assistant, Standish (Robert Strange), who want to hold up Curtis for tons of money for his own TV system. Part of the plot, of course, involves Standish making sure that no other inventor with a superior TV gets to Curtis — and after Griffin off-handedly shoots the senior engineer to prevent him from escaping and blowing the plot, he sabotages Fred’s attempt to demonstrate his set to Curtis by reversing the wires and shorting out its cathode-ray tube, causing the set to blow up in Curtis’s office and Curtis to decide he wants nothing more to do with Fred, Bobby or their invention.

Nonetheless, Fred manages to get a new cathode-ray tube — courtesy of Bobby, who hocks her fur coat to raise the money — and he re-starts his equipment. Rocky and Mae hook up a plot to get another demonstration at Paragon by sending out fake invitations to the company’s board of directors on the eve before they’re scheduled to sign up for the system Griffin and Standish bootlegged from Paragon — only while Fred and Bobby are at Fred’s place together to stage the show, the bad guys arrive with some hired thugs to smash the equipment and eliminate the competition. Fred gets Bobby to turn the camera switch on, and the Paragon board members get to watch a real-life fight between Fred and the baddies, who are “trapped by television” as the camera makes them visible to the people at the receiving set in the Paragon offices. Eventually the police — led there by Rocky — come and arrest the bad guys, Fred is seen proposing to Bobby on TV and that gives Rocky and Mae the idea to do something similar “live.”

Trapped by Television is a quite charming little film with some great gags in it — like the snarling James Cagney impression Fred uses to convince the Acme office manager he’s tough enough for a collection job (he probably learned how to do Cagney from working alongside him at Warners), or the one towards the end of the film in which Rocky complains at how slowly the cabdriver taking him to Fred’s house is driving. “If you think I’m too slow, drive it yourself,” the driver snarls — and one jump-cut later, Rocky is in the driver’s seat and the cabbie is in the back! It’s a good blend of comedy and suspense, and shows what a nice actor Lyle Talbot could be in the right kinds of roles — no doubt he had no idea that less than 20 years later he’d be making cheesy movies for Ed Wood (in case you were wondering, Talbot is the one degree of separation between Humphrey Bogart and Ed Wood). Nat Pendleton is also surprisingly charming, too — in some of his films he’s just plain annoying, but here he’s likable and genuinely funny (as most of the so-called “comic relief” in films like this wasn’t) — and Joyce Compton does her good hard-bitten blonde act just one tick of quality below Joan Blondell at Warners, which is actually high praise.

Mary Astor is an odder presence since, as noted above, she is way overqualified for this film — she made it the same year she starred in Sam Goldwyn’s prestige production Dodsworth and survived a scandal (a revelation of her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman) that nearly destroyed her career — and as she comes up with various schemes, each more preposterous than the last, to promote Fred’s TV, one half-expects her to tell him, “I’ve been a bad woman … worse than you could know.” Still, she’s appealing and makes the character believable. Trapped by Television is a quite good movie, really a situation comedy (not surprisingly given its director’s background!) though it gets listed on science-fiction checklists because TV was the stuff of science fiction in 1936 (though within three years NBC would actually be putting on regular TV broadcasts in New York City for about 100 or so set-owners, and it was only America’s involvement in World War II that delayed the mainstream TV industry for seven more years) and a showcase for good actors who weren’t really major stars (though Astor would become one later with The Great Lie and The Maltese Falcon at Warners) but had quite appealing personalities and were able to rise to a good, well-constructed script like this which put a fresh spin on the old clichés.